Shifting Sands: Kangaroo Beach and Australian Children’s TV

If there’s a kids television show you’ve seen countless times, there’s a good chance Tim Bain wrote it. Bain has scripted episodes for a number of popular children’s series, including Fireman Sam, Bob the Builder, Thomas & Friends, PJ Masks and Bluey. While living in the United Kingdom, he decided to develop a show of his own: an animated seaside-set action series called Kangaroo Beach. There was only one hitch, however, he confides – the beach isn’t nearly as familiar a setting in the UK as it is back home in Australia:

CBeebies had made a show called [The] Koala Brothers, which was all Australian animals in the outback [] so I thought, ‘Maybe there’s room for another Australian animal show made in the UK.’

Everyone really liked [Kangaroo Beach], but nobody felt it was British enough to be made there.

Enter award-winning Australian broadcast executive Michael Carrington, whom Bain had worked for on Bob the Builder. ‘Fortuitously, Michael was about to move back to Australia at the same time I was and take over as head of [the ABC’s Children’s and Education department],’ says Bain. ‘It was very lucky timing […] He wanted to do more preschool shows for ABC Kids at the time, and wanted to do shows that had a very Australian flavour to them.’

Kangaroo Beach focuses on four young animal friends who are training with their lifeguard heroes, and who get the chance to step in to help whenever there’s an emergency. Bain felt there wasn’t an Australian show out there like it:

There was nothing that spoke to that energetic, exciting, ­action-based, mission-based entertainment that is catnip for ­preschoolers […]

An element that we added [is] that it should be very kid-led. So we put those [younger characters] front and centre. I think that has been really appealing to the audience, because they feel a sense of empowerment – that they’re not just the victims [but] can help […] I hope that pays off at home with kids watching, and they feel like they can think about water safety [just as much] as their parents.

Since Kangaroo Beach debuted in late 2020, it has clocked up 14.9 million views (and counting) on ABC iview, and averages over 1.6 million views per episode when it airs on ABC Kids. Naturally, books, clothing and merchandise have followed to capture the enthusiasm of the show’s audience. Despite this proliferation of tie-ins, however, Kangaroo Beach’s influences were as far from toy sets and lunchboxes as you can get.

‘My dad was a lifesaver for the Anglesea Surf Lifesaving Club back in his day, and I was in the Torquay [Surf] Life Saving club,’ Bain recalls.

But all of [Kangaroo Beach] came from being in Little Nippers and my whole childhood and the friendships I made there, and the adventures we had around the cliffs of Torquay, around the beaches. Bits and pieces of that went into all the characters – particularly Neville the wombat [Jerra Wright-Smith], who is the sports-phobic one […] That certainly spoke to my childhood, as a sports-phobic little boy growing up in a sports-mad nation […] I could barely stand up on a surfboard, and didn’t fit in there […] It’s a write-what-you-know kind of thing.

For his Victorian College of the Arts graduation project, Bain made the animated short Arctic Adventure (2000), which featured voice performances from Eric Bana, John Clarke and Sigrid Thornton. Going on to write for variety show Rove Live and sketch comedy series The Wedge, he pitched various animated shows to networks before getting steady work on children’s TV in the 2010s. But the pathways for writers and creators in the Australian kids television space have changed massively since Bain started his career.

‘I worked as a freelance writer […] in the heyday when Seven, Nine and 10 were making [kids] shows and the animation production companies in Australia were doing really well,’ Bain muses.

But that completely stopped a year or so ago when the government decided they didn’t need quotas anymore and failed to replicate a similar quota on the streamers, which are sucking up the viewers away from the commercial networks.

Right now, it is pretty dire for writers, directors, producers trying to make Australian content because the ABC is really the only place to go. Fortunately, [the ABC] are doing a bang-up job of producing some amazing shows, but their budget can only go so far for so many shows.

Children’s television has always been an important part of the Australian screen landscape, but funding cuts and the removal of a minimum requirement for children’s programming will impact the industry. Bain believes Kangaroo Beach would never have come about if he hadn’t considered the absence of a big part of Australian culture on the screen. ‘Kids want to see themselves on screen,’ he says.

There’s one piece of advice that Bain keeps in mind when he starts new projects:

I asked Keith Chapman, who is the creator of Bob the Builder and PAW Patrol, […] ‘What’s your big secret to knocking out these hits?’ And he said, ‘I do whatever other people aren’t [doing]. I do something against the grain,’ which I thought was really good advice […] I felt that there were no shows set at the beach and in that world, and that, if we [could] nail the CG and the waves, we could have a big hit.

Based on the success of Kangaroo Beach, it’s going to be an endless summer.